Peggy Oki in 'Dogtown and Z-Boys'

20 years of Dogtown and Z-Boys: “It documented a revolution.”

In the mid-70s, a group of California kids changed skateboarding forever. Here, they discuss life since the cult 2001 doc that told their story.

by James Balmont
19 January 2021, 2:07pm

Peggy Oki in 'Dogtown and Z-Boys'

It was at the height of skateboarding's popularity when the cult documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2001. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 & 2 were among PlayStation's top-selling games, the CKY crew were watched by 2.4 million viewers a week on MTV's Jackass, and for the first time in history, more American teenagers were riding boards than swinging baseball bats. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers were name-checking Santa Monica’s Dogtown — the place where it all began — on 2002 single “By The Way”, which went twice-platinum in the USA.

Dogtown and Z-Boys didn't so much capture that zeitgeist — it was the zeitgeist. This story of "guys from the gutter, full of bravado, style and attitude, who made it big for a minute", in the words of scene photographer Glen E. Friedman, would capture minds the world over. Here was the definitive account of the pioneering Zephyr skate team, who in the mid-70s had dared to surf the concrete slopes around West Los Angeles, and its drained backyard pools, too. The day these young punks — "more like a street gang than a skate team," according to Skateboarder Magazine in 1975 — first took their boards from the lip of the pool into the air would forever change the course of skateboarding, setting the blueprint for the vertical sport we recognise today.

It "documented a revolution," says Tony Alva, the global action sports icon and former Zephyr team poster boy now considered a godfather of modern skateboarding; "the birth of a sport," adds director and skater Stacy Peralta. The film won both Best Director and the Audience Award at Sundance 2001 and sold over a million copies on DVD. It was even adapted for Hollywood, as Heath Ledger vehicle Lords of Dogtown, in 2005.

On the 20th anniversary of its premiere, i-D caught up with the original Zephyr skate team to find that much has changed for the former pro skaters in the years since Dogtown's heyday. "It was going to kill me," Tony divulges, as he, Z-Boys Stacy Peralta and Peggy Oki, and photojournalist Glen E. Friedman discuss how tragedy, experience, and redemption have guided them towards greater things.

As it turns out, life hasn't always been a smooth ride.

With the Zephyr team now embracing their 60s, the role of skateboarding in their lives has, unsurprisingly, changed. “It’s an unpredictably aggressive form of sport," Tony says, "it's tough on the body." Wrist fractures, Surfer's ear, and cartilage injuries have transformed how Tony, Stacy and Peggy approach the sport they sensationalised in the 1970s today. "When God designed human knees, he just really fucked up," says Tony. "They're just not designed for what we want to do. We need giraffe knees."

Like the others, he chooses ocean waves and concrete slopes over vert ramps these days. "Falling on concrete doesn't work for me any longer," agrees Stacy, while Peggy, who retired from vertical skating at 53, sums it up best: "I never had too much inhibition about bombing down a hill," she declares. "I'm not decrepit… I just don't want to get injured anymore."

But the thrill, to Tony, has always been "that sense of freedom where anything's possible," and it remains priceless, even today. He still skates the same neighbourhoods he did as a kid, down at that fabled meeting point between the Pacific Coastline and the legendary Route 66. Stacy rues how gentrification made Venice "so hip that it's unhip," but to Tony, life is "to be a part of the vibe that's down there, regardless of how much it's changed".

Glen straddled a photography career across both skateboarders and musicians, settling for New York some 30 years ago, where he now operates book publishing imprint Burning Flags. Stacy, meanwhile, went from founding skate company Powell-Peralta to cementing himself as a filmmaker, with critically-acclaimed documentaries Riding Giants, Crips and Bloods: Made In America, and Bones Brigade: An Autobiography all following Dogtown. He's still in pain from conducting "over 600 interviews" for the latter, but his passion remains unwavering. Having completed a film campaign focusing on clinical trials for a new HIV medication, he is now in post-production for a documentary on Gerry Lopez, the Hawaiian surfer widely-recognised as one of the best in the world.

But it is Peggy Oki — the only female member of the original Zephyr skate team; winner of the Women's Freestyle at the pivotal 1975 Del Mar Skateboarding Championship — whose career took the most inspiring turn. She smiles as she recalls how surfing brought her into the ocean, citing the "tenacity" of skateboarding as a step towards her passion for environmental activism.

As the founder of the Origami Whales Project, Peggy's mission today is to protect marine wildlife and raise awareness of the commercial whaling activities of countries like Norway and Japan. Having exhibited "the big curtain" of 28,000 folded paper whales (one for every whale killed since 1986) during the International Whaling Commission meetings in Alaska in 2007, she is now determined to inspire others to embrace such causes. Her 2016 TEDx talk 'Allow Things To Unfold And You Will Find Your Purpose In Life' has been viewed nearly 3.5 million times since 2016; she remains a dedicated public speaker to this day.

Not every member of the Zephyr team would shine so brightly into the 21st century. "Half the team is gone," Tony says, referring to the deaths of Bob Biniak, Shogo Kubo, Chris Cahill, "Baby" Paul Cullen and Dennis "Polar Bear" Agnew, in recent years. But it would arguably be Jay Adams' passing that would have the most impact on the sport.

Seen by contemporaries as one of the true pioneers at the centre of the revolution — an archetype of the modern skateboarder for his fearlessness and audacity — Adams suffered a fatal heart attack while on a surf trip in Mexico in 2014. He was 53 years old. He'd endured a troubled life since joining the Zephyr team at 13, and at the time of Dogtown's release, he was serving time in jail for drug offences. His profile in the film serves as its emotional gut-punch; a cautionary tale as to why, as Glen puts it, "you can't be a wild child your whole life".

"He was a joker, a prankster," Peggy laughs, recalling times spent with the team member she was once closest with, while Tony recalls feeling like he had lost a family member when he heard the news. They all agree that he found salvation in the end — he settled down, married, and found religion and peace in his later life. Stacy recalls the shock of seeing him “wearing wire-rim reading glasses and drinking hot tea” at what would be their final reunion in Venice, but cites the shared happiness between them as a memory he savours.

"I was going to end up right next to [some of] the other guys," Tony exclaims. "My behaviour, connected to drugs and alcohol, self-will and ego… it was going to kill me." Tony, of course, was once the rock star of the skateboarding world; he went all the way to the top with his brand, Alva Skates, and engaged in every hedonistic pleasure that came with it. "Nothing else was going to work for me," Tony says, as he describes his journey through rehab and 14 years of sobriety. "Alcoholism… runs in my family." He emphasises how, like Stacy, yoga, meditation, exercise and spirituality are now the pillars of his mental wellbeing.

"The last 14 years have been the best years of my life," he states with certainty. "Better than even the 60s and 70s. I can look in the mirror today and not be ashamed, and if the most egocentric, self-centred, angry kid ever can get to this point, then anybody can." While the transformation is captured discreetly in Vans’ 2020 film The Tony Alva Story, the message Tony preaches rings loudly. The film's narrator, 51-year-old skateboarder Jeff Grosso, would die in March the same year from acute polydrug intoxication.

Vans aren't the only ones still revisiting the Zephyr team. Having spent years capturing the scene first hand, Glen E. Friedman released an expanded version of his book Dogtown - The Legend of the Z-Boys in 2019. He's now putting the final touches to his own short film, due for release later this year.

A Look Back at Dogtown and Z-Boys explores the parts of skateboarding’s “origin story” that were missed first time around, Glen reveals. "There was a lot of controversy amongst our group,” he says. “While we all loved the original film, some people didn't agree with the trajectory of the story… for one, there were a lot more people involved than just those 12 guys. By basing it around that one photograph of the Zephyr team, you couldn't tell some vital parts of the story. I mainly wanted to give everyone a chance to speak up about how the film changed their lives since its release and to share some parts that were left out."

As for the original Zephyr surf store that was once the base of the Z-Boys exploit, it's still there at 2003 Main Street, Santa Monica — saved from demolition and designated a City Landmark in 2007. Nowadays it's Dogtown Coffee, and while the neighbourhood has changed, owner Assaf Raz says that surfers and skaters are still making the pilgrimage down there.

"There's a brotherhood amongst skateboarders that's really strong," Glen concludes of the Z-Boys' legacy — seen in skate parks dotted in towns across the world today. "But it's your individuality which is important; [the ability] to use it and work towards making a better community."

It's a sentiment echoed throughout the team assembled before us, who each impart a piece of like-minded wisdom as they reflect on their six decades of skateboarding. "Do whatever you feel passionate about," says Peggy. "Whether it's helping kids feel empowered, addressing plastic pollution, or volunteering for animal adoption organisations." For Stacy, focusing your attention on your dreams is the key to living a life that's fulfilling. "And this is coming from someone who was told over and over by school teachers that I wasn't paying attention!"

But perhaps Tony puts it best: "Skateboarding gives me that joy of life… but my job now is to guide, and be more of a teacher. My actions speak louder than anything I could ever, ever say. And I'm still taking baby steps, even at 63 years old, man."

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